Thursday, August 7, 2008

Back in business. Well, almost.

Hello all! I'm back from my awesome three week vacation to the UK, during which I visited Canterbury, York, Edinburgh, Oban, Inverness, Stratford-upon-Avon, Cardiff, and London. It was generally short on music, with the exception of listening to Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture and Scottish Symphony while at Fingal's Cave and to music of all sorts on long train rides, and going to a concert at the Proms at Royal Albert Hall. We heard Toccata and Fugue in D minor (Bach, orch. H. Wood), Concerto for Horn and Violin (Smyth), Prelude in C sharp minor (Rachmaninoff, orch. H. Wood), Symphony No. 2 (Rachmaninoff), played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

You know why I like the British? Because they really have no shame. The arrangement of the Bach was for organ and full neo-Romantic orchestra, including 7 French horns, tuba, 3 parts per ww plus auxilaries, and gong. It was an interesting arrangement, based around pairing instruments with their respective organ pipes, but, well, Bach it was not.

I wasn't wildly impressed with the concerto, as the violinist wasn't able to project in the hall and the horn wasn't given enough of a part, but I liked the idea behind the second and third movements, a romantic duet and fae fox hunt respectively.

The Prelude was quite similar to the Toccata and Fugue, though less jarring as a result of the fact that it was a heavily Romantic piece to begin with. It also sounded exactly like the soundtrack to Disney's movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Honestly, if you want a taste of what Wood's arranging is like, just listen to that soundtrack.

Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 is one of my favorite pieces of music; my first year of undergrad the orchestra played in for the final concert of the year, and while I didn't get to play in it in concert, I did get to sub for one rehearsal. Ever since then, I've been hooked. It's melodramatic and heavy, sweeping and romantic, and contains both beautiful light ww and string melodies and powerful brass fanfares. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra played a very interesting version, some of which was very good and some of which I didn't like at all. Their tempos were pretty extreme; all fast sections were race-speed, which I rather liked because of the slightly manic air it gave the piece and because the orchestra played them very well and together. The slow sections, however, tended to either be rubato to the point of ridiculousness or entirely too moderato. I also would have liked to hear the orchestra play in a more standard hall, because there were quite a few balance issues, such as a strange obscuring of the opening theme of the 4th movement and overly loud clarinets and percussion, which I can imagine were at least exacerbated by the very large round hall and the risers on stage.

Despite these various issues, I really did enjoy the concert and the orchestra. The sheer power, hanging masterfully on the edge of loss of control, and impeccable balance of their brass section really made the symphony, even though they were occasionally too loud for the rest of the orchestra. As a section, they were sublime. As far as the oboe section was concerned, I liked the sound of the first oboist, though unlike the last time I heard the orchestra I wasn't entirely impressed; there was nothing specifically bad about her playing, but nothing specifically noteworthy either. I was much less impressed with the English hornist. He had a very choppy sound which made him sound quite amateurish, and while I liked his (very British) tone, I thought it was obscured by the above. There was no real sense of direction in his playing: it didn't sweep you up and forward, and as a result the English horn solos sounded a bit odd and stagnant rather than passionate. I also wasn't pleased with the first clarinetist, who had a very strident tone which reminded me of German players; it didn't match with the rest of the ensemble.

My final thoughts? The power and drama of the music and the passion of the brass section made up for the shortcomings of the group as a whole.

I've bought a new "
Double hollow-ground, razor-style" reed knife (Philadelphia Reed Knives Co.), which I will like once I get used to hollow ground knives again, and a new sharpening stone (fine grit diamond stone), which I love. I have the excerpts for my auditions in September. Aside from the fact that I leave early on Saturday morning for a week long family vacation to the beach, I'm ready to get back into the swing of things and practice up a storm.

My audition excerpts: Bach, St Matthew's Passion; Mozart, Symphony 41; Mahler, Symphony 1; Saint-Saens, Organ Symphony; Tchaikovsky, Symphony 5; Strauss, Oboe Concerto pp. 1-3.